EFF Fights For Redditor Targeted By Religious Organization For Forum Posts About Its Data Collection Policies
from the shut-up,-they-dmca'ed dept
There goes the DMCA, being wielded as a tool of censorship again. The EFF is currently battling for a Redditor’s anonymity — something threatened by a bogus DMCA takedown and a subpoena seeking to unmask this supposed infringer.
It’s about much more than simply disappearing content from the internet one party didn’t want exposed. It’s about targeting an individual to deter them from ever posting content like this again. Behind the subpoena is a powerful religious entity — one that’s seeking to shut down criticism of its means and methods.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is representing an anonymous Reddit commenter who is facing an abusive copyright claim from the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, a group that publishes doctrines for Jehovah’s Witnesses. Today, EFF filed a motion to quash the attempt by Watchtower to unmask the online commenter.
The commenter referred to as “John Doe” in the filing is a lifelong member of the Jehovah’s Witness community. Using the handle “darkspilver,” Doe has chosen to share comments and concerns via one of Reddit’s online discussion groups. Darkspilver’s posts included a copy of an advertisement asking for donations that appeared on the back of a Watchtower magazine, as well as a chart Doe edited and reformatted to show the kinds of data that the Jehovah’s Witness organization collects and processes. Earlier this year, Watchtower subpoenaed Reddit for information on “darkspilver” as part of a potential copyright lawsuit.
There is no legitimate reason for the Watchtower’s actions. The point of these efforts is to chill free speech about a large religious organization that engages in questionable behavior. Anonymity is essential to these discussions. Without this protection, Watchtower could track down users whose comments it didn’t like and engage in targeted harassment until the comments stopped.
The EFF is asking the court to quash the subpoena and stand up for the right to engage in anonymous speech. As the EFF’s motion [PDF] points out, members of the church stand to lose a lot more than the ability to comment on their church’s actions if exposed. Their social and familial lives could be completely disrupted.
The ability to speak pseudonymously is crucial to Doe’s ability to comment freely about matters that can be deeply divisive and contentious among both current and former members of the Jehovah’s Witness community. Doe’s lifelong experience with that community makes Doe afraid to question or doubt religious doctrine or administration in public. Doe believes that dissenting points of view are strongly discouraged in the Jehovah’s Witness community, and that those who express them are likely to be labeled “apostates,” and excommunicated, or “disfellowshipped” from the community. For Doe and others, who grow up and live their lives within the Jehovah’s Witness community, alienation from their religious community means alienation from central social relationships with friends and family.
As the EFF points out, the content targeted by the bogus takedown can only be considered “infringing” if everything else contained in copyright law is thrown out. One targeted posting was a scan of the back of a Watchtower magazine containing instructions on how to donate to the organization. The other contained information about the organization’s compliance with European data collection regulations. These were posted for informational purposes, allowing members of the subreddit to express their opinions about the organization’s data collections and policies. Even if Watchtower has legal ownership of both of these pieces of content, copyright law wasn’t violated by the user’s posting.
If Watchtower is able to establish ownership for both items, its infringement claims would still fail because both posting are lawful fair uses. The doctrine of fair use “allows the public to use copyrighted works ‘for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching … and scholarship.’”
The first posting, the Ad, was originally intended to raise money for the organization. Doe, by contrast, posted it on Reddit in order to spark further commentary regarding the organization’s solicitation strategy – which it did. Moreover, there is no evidence that Doe had any conceivable commercial purpose. The Chart, appears to have been originally created to summarize the Jehovah’s Witness organization’s storage and handling of personal data in connection with obligations of a new European data privacy rule. Doe’s reformatted version, by contrast, was intended to give subreddit members truthful information about the type of data the Jehovah’s Witness organization stores, and how it handles that information, to assuage potentially misguided concerns, and thus help encourage the preservation of information that might be useful in the future to reveal or punish past abuse.
The court has an obligation to protect free speech — even the anonymous speech of a person who may reside outside of the United States. Commentary on issues of public interest is an essential element of free speech. The internal workings of a religious organization with 20 million members worldwide is definitely of interest to the public — especially members of an online forum dedicated to discussion of this organization. Hopefully, this attempt to intimidate a forum member into silence by abusing copyright law will be decisively rejected by the court.